“There have been numerous explanations for why the fairies disappeared in Britain – education, advent of electrical lighting, evangelical religion. But one old man in the village of Alves, Moray, Scotland knew the real reason in 1851: tea drinking. Yes, tea banished the fairies.”
The historian Owen Davies wrote this in referring to a passage from an old source. He didn’t mention where it came from. In doing a search on Google Books, multiple results came up. The earliest is supposedly on page 624 of the 1850 Family Herald – Volumes 8-9, but there is no text for it available online. Several other books from the 1850s to 1880s reprinted it. (1)
Below is the totality of what Davies shared. It might have originally been part of a longer passage, but it is all that I could find from online sources. It’s a short account and intriguing.
“How do you account,” said a north country (3) minister of the last age (the late Rev. Mr. M’Bean, of Alves,) to a sagacious old elder of his session, “for the almost total disappearance of the ghosts and fairies that used to be common in your young days?” “Tak’ my word for’t, minister,” replied the old man, “it’s a’ owing to the tea; whan the tea cam’ in, ghaists an’ fairies gaed out. Weel do I mind whan at a’ our neebourly meetings — bridals, christenings, lyke-wakes, an’ the like — we entertained ane anither wi’ rich nappy ale; an’ when the verra dowiest o’ us used to get warm i’ the face, an’ a little confused i’ the head, an’ weel fit to see amaist onything when on the muirs on yer way hame. But the tea has put out the nappy; an’ I have remarked that by losing the nappy we lost baith ghaists and fairies.”
Will Hawkes noted that, “‘nappy’ ale meant strong ale.” In response to Davies, James Evans suggested that, “One thing which I haven’t seen mentioned here is that there is an excellent chance that the beer being produced in this region, at this time, was mildly hallucinogenic.” And someone following that asked, “Due to ergot?” Now that makes it even more intriguing to consider. There might have been good reason people used to see more apparitions. Whether or not ergot was involved, we do know that in the past all kinds of herbs were put into groot or gruit ales for nutritional and medicinal purposes but also maybe for the affect they had on the mind and mood. Herbs, instead of hops, used to be what distinguished ale from beer.
Let me make some connections. Alcohol is a particular kind of drug. Chuck Pezeshki argues that, “alcohol is much more of a ‘We’ drug when used in moderation, than an ‘I’ drug” (Leadership for Creativity Isn’t all Child’s Play). He adds that, “There’s a reason for the old saying ‘when the pub closes, the revolution starts!’” Elsewhere, he offers the contrast that, “Alcohol is on average is pro-empathetic, sugar anti-empathetic” (The Case Against Sugar — a True Psychodynamic Meta-Review).
Alcohol from grains and grapes defined much of civilization, more so than any other mind-altering substance. Or that was the case once farming became more systematized and productive during the Axial Age, such that something had to be done with the more consistent surplus yields at a time when storage and preservation was a problem. And with increased surpluses came increased size and concentration of populations, i.e., mass urbanization of ever larger cities and ever more expansive empires.
That brought with it a need to solve the problem of unsafe drinking water, easily resolved by making alcohol that kills microbes. Whatever the case may have been in prior ages, at least by the early medieval period drunkenness had become a defining feature of many cultures in the Western world:
“Indeed the general rowdiness of English drinking at this period, which precluded priests from participating, is attested in the twelfth century historian William of Malmesbury. In describing the character of the Angles before the Norman conquest of AD 1066 he says that all drank together, throughout the night and day, that intoxication was common, making men effeminate, and that the people would eat until they were sick and drink until they threw up (these last two habits being passed on to the conquerors). Another tradition of theirs not mentioned until after the conquest is that of the wassail, or toast, first found in the poet Layamon around AD 1200.”
It makes sense. Until the modern era of reforms focused on public health, a large part of the population was dependent on alcoholic beverages for safe drinking. Even common wells were easily contaminated because people with unclean hands were constantly handling the bucket that was repeatedly dropped back down into the water. No one back then understood that it was bacteria that made them sick, but they did understand that alcohol kept them healthy. The health component was emphasized by adding in nutritional and medicinal herbs.
So they developed a drinking culture. Everyone, not only men but women and children as well, drink alcohol on a daily basis. Much of it was low in alcohol level (e.g., small beer), but much of it had greater amounts. Many people spent their lives in a mild state of near constant inebriation. Throw in some mildly mind-altering herbs and it would’ve shaped the entire mentality and culture. Going back to the ancient world, alcohol had been associated with spirituality, religion, ritual, worship, ecstasy, and the supernatural. The specific practice of groot ales is described in the earliest records. Such a cultural habit that probably extended over millennia had to have had a major impact on their sense of identity and reality, in supporting an overt expression of the bundled mind, what Julian Jaynes describes as the bicameral mind.
Think about it. Tea, coffee, cocoa, and sugar weren’t introduced into the West until colonialism; i.e., early modernity. It took a while for them to become widespread. They first were accessible only to those in the monied classes, including the intellectual and artistic elite but also the clerical elite. Some have argued that these stimulants are what fueled the Enlightenment Age. And don’t forget that tea played a key role in instigating the American Revolution. Changes in diet often go hand in hand with changes in culture (see below). One might note that this was the precise era when the elite began talking about the early spread of a mental health epidemic referred to as melancholia and acedia, what we would now understand as depression.
There are those like Terrence McKenna who see psychedelics as having much earlier played a central role in shaping the human mind. This is indicated by the wide use of psychedelics by indigenous populations all over the planet and by evidence of their use among ancient people. Psychedelics and entheogens preceded civilization and it seems that their use declined as civilization further developed. What replaced psychedelics over time were the addictive stimulants. That other variety of drug has a far different affect on the human mind and culture.
The change slowly began millennia ago. But the full takeover of the addictive mentality only seems to have come fully into its own in recent centuries. The popularizing of caffeinated drinks in the 19th century is a key example of the modernizing of the mind. People didn’t simply have more active imaginations in the past. They really did live in a cultural worldview where apparitions were common, maybe in the way that Julian Jaynes proposed that in the Bronze Age people heard communal voices. These weren’t mere hallucinations. It was central to the lived reality of their shared culture.
In traditional societies, alcohol was used for social gatherings. It brought people together and, maybe combined with other substances, made possible a certain experience of the world. With the loss of that older sense of communal identity, there was the rise of the individual mindset isolated by addictive stimulants. This is what has fueled all of modernity. We’ve been buzzing ever since. Stimulants broke the spell of the fairies only to put us under a different spell, that of the demiurgic ego-consciousness.
“The tea pots full of warm water,” as Samuel Tissot put in his 1768 An Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons, “I see upon their tables, put me in mind of Pandora’s box, from whence all sorts of evils issue forth, with this difference however, that they do not even leave the hopes of relief behind them; but, on the contrary, by inducing hypochondriac complaints, diffuse melancholy and despair.” (2) That is to say the modern mind was transformed and, according to some, not in a good way. The living world became inanimate, no longer bustling with animistic beings, and presumably the last of the bicameral voices went silent.
This change didn’t come easily, though. The bundled mind is probably the evolutionary norm of the human species. It’s our default mode. That is because humans evolved with with psychedelic plants and rotting alcoholic fruit (some other species have been observed stashing fruit to eat later maybe with the intention to become inebriated). The stimulants, although around previously, were far less common until agriculture. The targeting of alcohol and psychedelics with criminalization was, as previously noted, social control as substance control; but it could be added that it was also mind control. Still, archaic habits die hard. If stimulants help people survive the unnatural stresses of the capitalist work week, it is alcohol that many turn to on the weekends to forget those stresses and become themselves again.
Immediately preceding U.S. Prohibition, there was a health epidemic involving moral panic and culture war. It was mixed up with ideological conflict over proper social norms, social roles, and social identities. In particular, there was an obsession over masculinity and the fear of emasculation or else of libidinous dissipation (e.g., an anti-masturbation campaign focused on young boys). Addiction and alcoholism were seen to play a role. This was at a time when large number of northern European immigrants established a heavy beer-drinking culture. Going back to the Greeks and Romans, there had long been a cultural belief that, according to Galenic humoral theory, beer was ‘cold’ and hence effeminizing. All alcohol was deemed to be potentially ‘cold’, but specifically beer.
This is the origins of the class bias toward wine, although wine too sometimes was seen as ‘cold’. It might also contribute to why stimulants were so important to the male-dominated work culture of capitalism. To be a man, meant to be assertive and aggressive, to be mentally focused and intense, to always be on one’s game. The sedating and slowing affect of alcohol is the opposite of the ideal attributes of a successful alpha male as part of the capitalist elite.
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(1) The Country Gentleman – Vol. XII No. 23 (1858), William Hopkin’s “The Cruise of the Betsey” from Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country – Volume 58 (1858) and from Littell’s Living Age – Volume 59 (1858), John William Kirton’s One Thousand Temperance Anecdotes [&c.] (1868), John William Kirton’s A Second Thousand of Temperance Anecdotes (1877), The Church of England Temperance Chronicle – No. 42 Vol. VIII (1880), and The Guernsey Magazine – Vol. X No. 12 (1882).
(2) “There is another kind of drink not less hurtful to studious men than wine; and which they usually indulge in more freely; I mean warm liquors [teas], the use of which is become much more frequent since the end of the last century. A fatal prejudice insinuated itself into physic about this period. A new spirit of enthusiasm had been excited by the discovery of the circulation: it was thought necessary for the preservation of health to facilitate it as much as possible, by supplying a great degree of fluidity to the blood, for which purpose it was advised to drink a large quantity of warm water. Cornelius Bontekoe, a Dutch physician, who died afterwards at Berlin, first physician to the elector of Brandenburgh, published in 1679 a small treatise in Dutch, upon tea, coffee, and chocolate, in which he bestows the most extravagant encomiums on tea, even when taken to the greatest excess, as far as one or two hundred cups in a day, and denies the possibility of its being hurtful to the stomach. This error spread itself with surprising rapidity all over the northern part of Europe; and was attended with the most grievous effects. The æra of its introduction is marked by an unhappy revolution in the account of the general state of health at that time. The mischief was soon noticed by accurate observers. M. Duncan, a French physician settled at Rotterdam, published a small work in 1705, wherein we find, amidst a great deal of bad theory, some useful precepts against the use of hot liquors (I). M. Boerhaave strongly opposed this pernicious custom; all his pupils followed his example, and all our eminent physicians are of the same opinion. The prejudice has at last been prevented from spreading, and within these few years seems to have been rather less prevalent (m); but unfortunately it subsists still among valetudinarians, who are induced to continue these pernicious liquors, upon the supposition that all their disorders proceed from a thickness of blood. The tea-pots full of warm water I see upon their tables, put. me in mind of Pandora’s box, from whence all sorts of evils issue forth, with this difference however, that they do not even leave the hopes of relief behind them; but, on the contrary, by inducing hypochondriac complaints, diffuse melancholy and despair. […]
“The danger of these drinks is considerably increased, as I have before observed, by the properties of the plants infused in them; the most fatal of these when too often or too freely used, is undoubtedly the tea, imported to us since near two centuries past from China and Japan, which has so much increased diseases of a languid nature in the countries where it has been introduced, that we may discover, by attending to the health of the inhabitants of any city, whether they drink tea or not; and I should imagine one and the greatest benefits that could accrue to Europe, would be to prohibit the . importation of this famous leaf, which contains no essential parts besides an acrid corrosive gum, with a few astringent particles (o), imparting to the tea when strong, or when the infusion has stood a long time and grown cold, a styptic taste, slightly felt by the tongue, but which does not prevent the pernicious effects of the warm water it i$ drenched in. These effects are so striking, that I have often seen very strong and healthy men, seized with faintness, gapings, and uneasiness, which lasted for some hours after they had drank a few cups of tea fasting, and sometimes continued the whole day. I am sensible that these bad effects do not shew themselves so plainly in every body, and that there are some who drink tea every day, and remain still in good health; but these people drink it with moderation. Besides, the non-existence of any danger cannot be argued from the instances «f some few who have been fortunate enough to escape it.
“The effects of coffee differing from’ those of tea, it cannot be placed in the same class ; for coffee, although made with- warm water, is not so pernicious for this reason, as it is on account of its being a powerful stimulus, producing strong irritations in the fibres by its bitter aromatic oil This oil combined as it is with a kind of very nourishing meal, and of easy digestion, would make this berry of great consequence, in pharmacy, as one of the bitter stomachics, among which it would be the most agreeable, as well as one of the most active. This very circumstance is sufficient to interdict the common use of it, which must be exceedingly hurtful. A continual irritation of the fibres of the stomach must at length destroy their powers; the mucus is, carried off, the nerves are irritated and acquire singular spasms, strength fails, hectic fevers come on with a train of other diseases, the cause of which is industriously concealed, and is so much the more difficult to eradicate, as this sharpness united with an oil seems not only to infect the fluids, but even to adhere to the vessels themselves. On the contrary, when seldom taken, it exhilerates, breaks down the slimy substances in the stomach, quickens its action, dispels the load and pains of the head, proceeding from interrupted digestions, and even clears the ideas and sharpens the understanding, if we may credit the accounts of men of letters, who have therefore used it very freely. But let me be permitted to ask, whether Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Petronius, to which I may venture to add Corneille and Moliere, whose masterpieces will ever be the delight of the remotest posterity, let me ask, I say, whether they drank coffee? Milk rather takes off from the irritation occasioned by coffee, but still does not entirely prevent all its pernicious effects, for even this mixture has some disadvantages peculiar to itself. Men of learning, there fore, who are prudent, ought in general to keep coffee as their favourite medicine, but should never use it as a common drink. The custom is so much the more dangerous, as it soon degenerates into a habit of necessity, which few men have the resolution to deprive themselves of. We are sensible of the poison, and swallow (32) it because it is palatable.”
(3) The original passage that inspired this post asserted that the source of the anecdote was “a north country minister of the last age”. One might wonder what was considered the last age. A generation earlier? The century before? Anyway, maybe more significant was that, as the storyteller was of the north country, presumably the ‘old man’ who responded was also of the north country. At the very least, that meant north of London, but probably referring to the rural north from the Midlands to the borderlands, maybe all of it being part of the vast north to the literary imagination of the southern elite and urbanites.
This brings us to another point about ‘nappy ale’, in probably referring to entheogenic groot ale. Often non-herbal beer made out of hops apparently first most strongly took hold in southern England, although with exceptions along the northern coast and major waterways. Yet ale remained the most popular and widespread alcoholic drink until the colonial era began in early modernity. The takeover of hops beer, at least in Merry Ol’ England (i.e., London and surrounding region), happened to coincide with the English Civil War. That conflict is what some consider the first modern revolution and class war. Also, it was primarily a contest for power between southern Cavaliers and northern Roundheads. One is then reminded of how important taverns were in the colonies during the American Revolution.
Joshua Thomas Ravenhill writes, “Brewing with hops had been established in the Low Countries by the early fourteenth century. As has been demonstrated by Milan Pajic, Doche aliens, mainly from Holland and Zeeland, were the first to start brewing beer in England by at least the end of the fourteenth century, and there were alien beerbrewers in England by at least 1399. It took a long time for beer to become as popular as ale in the capital. Bennett and Bich Luu, writing of London, argue that it was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that natives were drinking beer in greater quantities than ale and that large numbers of natives brewed beer” (The Experiences of Aliens in Later Medieval London and the Negotiation of Belonging, 1400 – 1540).
By the way, the use of hops in general only began to significantly take hold, in England and Europe, during the 14th century. That was the period of pre-Reformation religious hereticism, political radicalism, class war, and peasants’ revolts. The English Peasants’ Revolt is the earliest conflict that sometimes gets called the first modern revolution because the ideological rhetoric was showing the signs of what later would become more well articulated. That was the major shifting point for the decline of feudalism. The earliest of the enclosures began around then, only becoming a government-sanctioned enclosure movement with the Glorious Revolution following the English Civil War. So, the two major English internal conflicts that get called modern or modern-like revolutions bookended the period of the rise of hops beer in replacing groot ale.
As the original passage maybe indicates, it was the lower class of rural former peasantry that had been still drinking groot ale into the first centuries of the modern period, such that it was still a clear cultural memory in 1850. In Europe where hops were used earlier, “Ale made with gruit was a drink for the poor and the sick” (Richard W. Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance). Hops was often a trade good and the poor were more dependent on local ingredients. Yet the groot tradition barely hung on in a few isolated locations: “In rural western Norway in the 1950s brewers still used pors, that is bog myrtle. The survival of the practice was certainly exceptional since in the sixteenth, but especially in the seventeenth centuries, there were campaigns in central Europe to get rid of grut or pors.”
Communal peasant-like identities also lasted longer in rural areas. Possibly, it was the fact that groot ale supported such a mentality that it became a target of the reformers of morality, land, and agriculture. Not only how land and property is structured will structure the mind but also what is grown on the land and who owns the land to decide what is grown there. That is what the enclosure movement was all about, in order to promote the enclosure of mind and identity in the form of the hyper-individualistic self as capitalist, consumer, and worker; as opposed to being defined by the communal reality of feudal villages and the commons (The Enclosure of the Mind).
Hops beer could be industrially mass-produced, as opposed to the more local and often female-dominated home production of groot ale. But also it was about productivity. Two things. Hallucinogens, even if mild, don’t put people in the mindset for long grueling hours of labor that requires intense focus, such as working in a factory or mine, particularly the night shift or double shifts. Hallucinogens mixed into alcohol is even less supportive of profitable efficiency of workers. But even alcohol alone, if only hops beer, is not all that beneficial for the bottom line. In early capitalism, workers were sometimes paid with beer; but that practice quickly ended. Interestingly, early modern politics was also rife with alcohol. Candidates would give out beer and, in places like the American South, election day was basically a drunken carnival (Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People, pp. 202-203; Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That was likewise suppressed as time went on.
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6/26/21 – Update: There is some relevant and interesting info to be added. It’s not merely that stimulants replaced psychedelics. The shift is a bit more complex. As tea and coffee became more common drinks, so did beer brewed with hops that replaced the archaic practice of gruit ales brewed with herbs. That used to be the distinction between beer and ale, whether or not it included hops. Also, the distinction was that those herbs were often stimulating, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic. For example, some of the same herbal ingredients are used in absinthe.
The use of hops in brewing beer is first recorded in Northern France in 800s. It didn’t spread to England until the 1400s, then began to catch on in the 1500s, and became useful for beer preservation as colonial trade expanded in the following centuries. Even with the advantages, gruit ales without hops remained common, particularly in rural areas. At a time when most alcohol produced was consumed personally or sold locally, there was little need to preserve beer with hops. It wasn’t until the mass production later in the industrial age that hops became king. But that was already being felt by the 19th century when the fairies were disappearing.
There was motivation for this. There is an obvious benefit for modern capitalism in the use of stimulants. Hops, on the other hand, is a depressive and lowers sex drive. The more that stimulants are used, the more that depressives are needed to wind down at the end of the day. That is opposed to the gruit ales, often lower in alcohol, that were imbibed all day long to maintain a mild buzz without the constant up and down cycle of addiction to stimulants and depressives. The Church, by the 1500s, had already caught on that hops would make for a more passive population in subduing people’s sinful nature; similar to why they used diet for social control (i.e., banning red meat before and during Carnival).
The increasing use of hops coincided with the rise of modernity, the enclosure movement, mass urbanization, colonial trade, capitalism, and industrialization. This also included land reforms and agricultural improvements that led to grain surpluses. So, with industrial farming and industrial breweries, beer could be produced in vast amounts, preserved with hops, and then shipped where needed. It was a marriage made in heaven. Meanwhile, the workers were forced to suck down the caffeine to keep up with the new grueling factory work. The older tradition of alewives making gruit ale at home probably was decimated with the moral panic of witch persecutions. Yet home brewing continued in many places into the early 20th century before finally making a more recent comeback.
The following are some links and excerpts:
Alcohol in the 17th Century: Age of Discovery
by David J. Hanson
1673: A group of citizens petitioned Parliment for legislation to prohibit brandy, coffee, rum, tea and chocolate. It was because ‘these greatly hinder the consumption of Barley, Malt, and Wheat, the product of our land.’ Parliment did not take action.58 (Bickerdyke, J. The Curiosities of Ale and Beer. London: Spring, 1965, p. 118.)
Alcohol in the 18th Century: European Expansion
by David J. Hanson
1700-1730: ‘Housewives in the northern colonies [of what is now the US] brewed beer every few days, since their product had a short shelf life.’6 (Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In: Holt. M. (Ed.) Alcohol. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp. 225-240. P. 227.) […]
1790″ “Parliament made it illegal to pay wages in liquor.54” (Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey. Dublin: O’Brien, 1980, p. 76.)
Alcohol in the 19th Century (And Emergence of Temperance)
by David J. Hanson
People had accepted drunkenness as part of life in the eighteenth century.2 (Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985, p. xxv.) But the nineteenth century brought a change in attitudes as a result of increasing industrialization. This created the need for a reliable and punctual work force.3 (Porter, R. Introduction. In: Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. xii.) Employers wanted self-discipline instead of self-expression. They wanted task orientation in place of relaxed conviviality. It followed that drunkenness was a threat to industrial efficiency and growth. […]
People blamed alcohol for problems caused by industrialization and urbanization. Thus, they blamed it for problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality. However, gross overcrowding and unemployment contributed greatly to these problems.9 (Porter, R. Introduction. In: Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 21)
People also blamed alcohol for more and more personal, social and religious/moral problems. […]
1804: As early as 1804, temperance organizations began in the Netherlands.15 (Garrelsen, H., and van de Goor, I. The Netherlands. In: Heath. Pp. 190-200. P. 191.)
British physician Thomas Trotter suggested that chronic drunkenness was a disease.16 (Plant, M. The United kingdom. In: Heath, D. Pp. 289-299. P. 291.) […]
Post-1865: After the American Civil War (1861-1865) beer replaced whiskey as preferred beverage of working men.62 (Rorabaugh, W. The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979.) […]
1886: Coca-Cola [i.e., cocaine] was a temperance beverage.93 (Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003, xxxi-xiv.)
What the Hell is a Gruit Ale?
from American Craft Beer
Most don’t know that the herbal collections making up gruit were the original “hops” – at least before gruit’s use began to dwindle in a large way during the 15th and 16th centuries. Many factors went into its disappearance, including the passing of the German beer purity law, Reinheitsgebot, which originally stated that water, barley, and hops were the only ingredients that could be used in beer production.
Another explanation for the disuse of gruit is based in religion – since some herbs used were known to have stimulating and even aphrodisiac effects, switching to a sedative substance like hops satisfied a Puritan need to keep people from enjoying themselves (sound familiar?).
Beer Without Hops: History of Gruit Ales
from 2nd Kitchen
Gruit ale’s are much stronger than beer made with hops, causing narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic effects. While this led to its recreational use popularity, it also led to its downfall.
Hops is an anaphradesiacal herb – meaning it lowers sexual drive. This is offset by the alcohol in beer. However, gruit doesn’t react this way and instead includes chemicals known as alkaloids.
Alkaloids are known to cause a chemical reaction with receptors in the brain similar to that of THC found in Marijuana and Absinthe. Many times gruit and absinthe share common ingredients such as wormwood and exhibit similar effects.
Gruit Ales: Beer Before Hops
by Andy Sparhawk
Gruit Ales: The Original War on Drugs
Despite gruit beers being alcoholic in nature, it is likely the effects of the herb mix contributed to its recreational effects, popularity and downfall. Each of the main herbs is considered much stronger in effect, psychotropic even, than beer’s modern substitute, Humulus lupulus, writes Buhner. “It is important to keep in mind the properties of gruit ale: it is highly intoxicating – narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic when consumed in sufficient quantities,” Buhner explains. “The hopped ale that took its place is quite different.”
Gruit beers were favored by many in medieval Europe dating back prior to the predominant use of hops, writes Buhner, but the narcotic effects of the herbs, kept closely guarded by the church or lordships made the blend a target. A bitter battle between the religions, regions and businessmen made the attack against gruit beers reminiscent of the war on drugs. “Hops, when they began to be suggested for use as a primary additive, in both Germany and England, were bitterly resisted,” explained Buhner. (Stephen Harrod Buhners’ book “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers”)
The war between ingredients played out over the course of two centuries,” writes Buhner, “simultaneously with the Protestant Reformation.”
As part of the Reformation, “Protestant religious intolerance of Catholic indulgence that was the genesis of the temperance movement.” Buhner goes on to explain, “The Protestant reformists were joined by merchants and competing royals to break the financial monopoly of the Church. The result was ultimately the end of a many-thousand-years’ tradition of herbal beer making in Europe and the limiting of beer and ale into one limited expression of beer production — that of hopped ales or what we call beer today.”
Gruit, or Brewing Without Hops
from Home Brewing
Before the beer purity laws which swept Europe in the 1500s, beer was made with many different admixtures, and Gruit was one variety which was popular. Recipes for gruit were different depending on which herbs grew locally. According to GruitAle.com, gruit usually included the following herbs: Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Bog Myrtle (Myrica Gale), and Marsh Rosemary (Ledum palustre). This claim is also supported by the book Sacred & Healing Herbal Beers, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. This book contains many ancient recipes for beer, including a section on gruit. Additional herbs which have been found in gruit recipes are Juniper berries, Mugwort, Wormwood, Labrador Tea, Heather, Licorice, and some others.
There are a few factors to consider when comparing the inebriatory qualities of gruit in comparison to more commonly made beer. It is held amongst those experienced in gruit inebriation that gruit rivals hopped beer on many accounts. One factor is that hops create a sedentary spirit in the imbiber. Amongst those knowledgeable about herbs, hops tea is well known as a catalyst for dreams, and creates drowsiness for the beer drinker. Hops is also an anaphradesiacal herb – meaning that it lessens sexual desire. While the alcohol in beer can lessen inhibitions – which may result in bawdier activities in many – the anaphradesiacal effect of the hops does counter act this to some degree. Gruit, on the other hand, does not counter this effect and also has a unique inebriatory effect due to the chemical composition of the herbs involved in its manufacture. One of noticeable aspect of this chemical composition is the Thujone content.
Thujones are chemicals known as alkaloids, which cause an additional form of inebriation when imbibed in beer. According to Jonathan Ott’s book, Pharmaecotheon I, Thujones act upon some of the same receptors in the brain as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, as found in Marijuana), and are also present in the spirit known as Absinthe. Gruit and Absinthe sometimes share the same herbs in their manufacture, such as Wormwood, Anise seed, and Nutmeg, but it is the herb Yarrow (Achilles Millefolium) that contains the lion’s share of thujones in the gruit concoction.
Yarrow is an herb with many uses and plays a profound part in history and myth. According to Buhner, its use can be traced back 60,000 years. Through many different cultures, from Dakota to ancient Romans, Yarrow has been used to staunch serious wounds – it is even rumored to have been used by Achilles (hence the name Achilles Millefolium, the thousand leaved plant of Achilles). According to Buhner, the plants aphrodisiacal qualities are also documented in the Navaho culture. As an inebriant, it has been used in the Scandinavian countries and in North America as well.
Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) and Wild Rosemary (Ledum glandulosum) also have many uses in the realm of herbalism, but not nearly as many as Yarrow. Both tend to have inebriation enhancing effects in beer, but also tend to cause a headache and probably a wicked hangover, if too much is drunk. The use of Bog Myrtle in ale was continued through the 1940s in Europe and the 1950s in outlying areas of England and the Scandinavian countries – Wild Rosemary probably through the 18th century.
For Centuries, Alewives Dominated the Brewing Industry
by Addison Nugent
BEER HAS BEEN AN ESSENTIAL aspect of human existence for at least 4,000 years—and women have always played a central role in its production. But as beer gradually moved from a cottage industry into a money-making one, women were phased out through a process of demonization and character assassination. […]
Professional brewsters and alewives had several means of identifying themselves and promoting their businesses. They wore tall hats to stand out on crowded streets. To signify that their homes or taverns sold ale, they would place broomsticks—a symbol of domestic trade—outside of the door. Cats often scurried around the brewsters’ bubbling cauldrons, killing the mice that liked to feast on the grains used for ale.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because this is all iconography that we now associate with witches. While there’s no definitive historical proof that modern depictions of witches were modeled after alewives, some historians see uncanny similarities between brewsters and anti-witch propaganda. One such example exists in a 17th-century woodcut of a popular alewife, Mother Louise, who was well-known in her time for making excellent beer.
While the relationship between alewives and witch imagery has still yet to be proven, we do know for sure that alewives and brewsters had a bad reputation from the jump. Beyond the cheating that some of their counterparts engaged in, brewsters also had to deal with the bad rap their entire gender suffered because of original sin. […]
Brewsters’ bad reputation didn’t help their case when wealthier, more socially-connected men started taking up the trade. After the devastation of the Black Plague, people began drinking a lot more ale, doing so in public alehouses instead of at home. This also marked a shift in people’s relationship with beer, which moved from being just a necessity and occasional indulgence to something closer to what we have today. Men suddenly saw they could make a real profit off of what was once seen as a semi-lucrative side gig for women. So they built taverns that were bigger and cleaner than the makeshift ones that alewives provided, and people flocked to them to revel and conduct business alike. Over time, alewives grew to be seen not only as tricky, but also dirty and their beer unsanitary.
Women continued to make low-alcohol ale for their family’s daily consumption after the Industrial Revolution increased production methods, which made buying beer cheaper and easier than making it at home. But that died in the 1950s and 1960s, when marketing campaigns branded beer as a “manly drink.” Companies such as Schlitz, Heineken, and Budweiser depicted beer as a means of unwinding after a long day of work, often featuring women serving their suited-up husbands cold bottles of brew.
The long battle between ale and beer
by Martyn Cornell
For those of you still with me: here’s a quote on ale and beer from 1912, less than a century ago, from a book called Brewing, by Alfred Chaston Chapman:
“At the present day the two words are very largely synonymous, beer being used comprehensively to include all classes of malt liquor, whilst the word ale is applied to all beers other than stout and porter.”
Why weren’t stout and porter called ales? This is a reflection, 200 years on, of the origin of porter (and brown stout) in the brown beers made by the beer brewers of London, rivals of the ale brewers for 500 years, ever since immigrants from the Low Countries began brewing in England with hops.
“Obadiah Poundage”, the aged brewery worker who wrote a letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the tax on “malt liquors” (the general term used for ale and beer as a class in the 18th century), is usually mined for the light he threw on the history of porter, but he is also very revealing on the continuing difference between ale and beer. In Queen Anne’s reign, about 1710, Poundage said, the increase in taxes on malt (caused by the expense of the War of the Spanish Succession) caused brewers to look to make a drink with less malt and more hops: “Thus the drinking of beer became encouraged in preference to ale … but the people not easily weaned from their heavy sweet drink, in general drank ale mixed with beer.”
This ale seems to have been brown ale (and the beer brown beer), for Poundage says that it was the gentry, “now residing in London more than they had done in former times”, who “introduced the pale ale, and the pale small beer they were habituated to in the country; and either engaged some of their friends, or the London brewers to make for them these kinds of drinks.” The pale ale “was sold by the victualler at 4d per quart and under the name of two-penny.” It was the need to counter the success of this pale ale that “excited the brown beer trade to produce, if possible, a better sort of commodity, in their way, than heretofore had been made”, an effort that “succeeded beyond expectation” with the development of what became known as porter, because of its popularity with London’s many street porters. But while the “brown beer trade” developed into the porter brewers, the ale brewers continued to find a market.
Indeed, outside London and the south of England, beer does not seem to have been that popular until Queen Anne’s time at the earliest. Daniel Defoe, writing in his Tour through the Eastern Counties of England, published in 1722, about the great hop fair at Stourbridge, just outside Cambridge, on the banks of the Cam, said:
“As to the north of England, they formerly used but few hops there, their drink being chiefly pale smooth ale, which required no hops, and consequently they planted no hops in all that part of England, north of the Trent; nor did I ever see one acre of hop ground planted beyond Trent in my observation; but as for some years past, they not only brew great quantities of beer in the north, but also use hops in the brewing their ale much more than they did before; so they all come south of Trent to buy their hops; and here being vast quantities brought, it is great part of their back carriage into Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, and all those counties; nay, of late since the Union, even to Scotland itself.”
It looks to have taken a century for the habit of putting hops in ale to spread north: in 1615, Gervase Markham published The English Huswife, in which he declared:
“The generall use is by no means to put any hops into ale, making that the difference betwixt it and beere, that the one hath hops the other none; but the wiser huswives do find an error in that opinion, and say the utter want of hops is the reason why ale lasteth so little a time, but either dyeth or soureth, and therefore they will to every barrell of the best ale allow halfe a pound of good hops.”
Fourteen years after Defoe’s report on North of England pale ale, the first edition of the London and Country Brewer, by the Hertfordshire farmer William Ellis, succinctly summed up the difference between ale and beer in the 1730s:
“For strong brown ale brewed in any of the winter months and boiled an hour, one pound is but barely sufficient for a hogshead, if it be tapped in three weeks or a month. If for pale ale brewed at that time, and for that age, one pound and a quarter of hops; but if these ales are brewed in any of the summer months there should be more hops allowed.
“For October or March brown beer, a hogshead made from eleven bushels of malt boiled an hour and a quarter, to be kept nine months, three pounds and a half ought to be boiled in such drink at the least. For October or March pale beer, a hogshead made from fourteen bushels, boiled an hour and a quarter and kept twelve months, six pounds ought to be allowed to a hogshead of such drink and more if the hops are shifted in two bags, and less time given the wort to boil.”
Going on Ellis’s figures, early 18th century ale contained up to 60 per cent more hops than Gervaise Markham’s “huswives” used in ale brewing a century earlier, but still only around a quarter as much hops as the beer. This, Ellis said, was because “Ale … to preserve in its mild Aley Taste, will not admit of any great Quantity of Hops.”
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Some relevant selections from previous posts:
Addiction, of food or drugs or anything else, is a powerful force. And it is complex in what it affects, not only physiologically and psychologically but also on a social level. Johann Hari offers a great analysis in Chasing the Scream. He makes the case that addiction is largely about isolation and that the addict is the ultimate individual. It stands out to me that addiction and addictive substances have increased over civilization. Growing of poppies, sugar, etc came later on in civilization, as did the production of beer and wine (by the way, alcohol releases endorphins, sugar causes a serotonin high, and both activate the hedonic pathway). Also, grain and dairy were slow to catch on, as a large part of the diet. Until recent centuries, most populations remained dependent on animal foods, including wild game. Americans, for example, ate large amounts of meat, butter, and lard from the colonial era through the 19th century (see Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise; passage quoted in full at Malnourished Americans). In 1900, Americans on average were only getting 10% of carbs as part of their diet and sugar was minimal.
Something else to consider is that low-carb diets can alter how the body and brain functions. That is even more true if combined with intermittent fasting and restricted eating times that would have been more common in the past. Taken together, earlier humans would have spent more time in ketosis (fat-burning mode, as opposed to glucose-burning) which dramatically affects human biology. The further one goes back in history the greater amount of time people probably spent in ketosis. One difference with ketosis is cravings and food addictions disappear. It’s a non-addictive or maybe even anti-addictive state of mind. Many hunter-gatherer tribes can go days without eating and it doesn’t appear to bother them, and that is typical of ketosis. This was also observed of Mongol warriors who could ride and fight for days on end without tiring or needing to stop for food. What is also different about hunter-gatherers and similar traditional societies is how communal they are or were and how more expansive their identities in belonging to a group. Anthropological research shows how hunter-gatherers often have a sense of personal space that extends into the environment around them. What if that isn’t merely cultural but something to do with how their bodies and brains operate? Maybe diet even plays a role. […]
It is an onslaught taxing our bodies and minds. And the consequences are worsening with each generation. What stands out to me about autism, in particular, is how isolating it is. The repetitive behavior and focus on objects resonates with extreme addiction. As with other conditions influenced by diet (shizophrenia, ADHD, etc), both autism and addiction block normal human relating in creating an obsessive mindset that, in the most most extreme forms, blocks out all else. I wonder if all of us moderns are simply expressing milder varieties of this biological and neurological phenomenon. And this might be the underpinning of our hyper-individualistic society, with the earliest precursors showing up in the Axial Age following what Julian Jaynes hypothesized as the breakdown of the much more other-oriented bicameral mind. What if our egoic consciousness with its rigid psychological boundaries is the result of our food system, as part of the civilizational project of mass agriculture?
This person said a close comparison was being in the zone, sometimes referred to as runner’s high. That got me thinking about various factors that can shut down the normal functioning of the egoic mind. Extreme physical activity forces the mind into a mode that isn’t experienced that often and extensively by people in the modern world, a state of mind combining exhaustion, endorphins, and ketosis — a state of mind, on the other hand, that would have been far from uncommon before modernity with some arguing ketosis was once the normal mode of neurocogntivie functioning. Related to this, it has been argued that the abstractions of Enlightenment thought was fueled by the imperial sugar trade, maybe the first time a permanent non-ketogenic mindset was possible in the Western world. What sugar (i.e., glucose), especially when mixed with the other popular trade items of tea and coffee, makes possible is thinking and reading (i.e., inner experience) for long periods of time without mental tiredness. During the Enlightenment, the modern mind was borne out of a drugged-up buzz. That is one interpretation. Whatever the cause, something changed.
Also, in the comment section of that article, I came across a perfect description of self-authorization. Carla said that, “There are almost always words inside my head. In fact, I’ve asked people I live with to not turn on the radio in the morning. When they asked why, they thought my answer was weird: because it’s louder than the voice in my head and I can’t perform my morning routine without that voice.” We are all like that to some extent. But for most of us, self-authorization has become so natural as to largely go unnoticed. Unlike Carla, the average person learns to hear their own inner voice despite external sounds. I’m willing to bet that, if tested, Carla would show results of having thin mental boundaries and probably an accordingly weaker egoic will to force her self-authorization onto situations. Some turn to sugar and caffeine (or else nicotine and other drugs) to help shore up rigid thick boundaries and maintain focus in this modern world filled with distractions — likely a contributing factor to drug addiction.
Prior to talk of neurasthenia, the exhaustion model of health portrayed as waste and depletion took hold in Europe centuries earlier (e.g., anti-masturbation panics) and had its roots in humor theory of bodily fluids. It has long been understood that food, specifically macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, & fat), affect mood and behavior — see the early literature on melancholy. During feudalism food laws were used as a means of social control, such that in one case meat was prohibited prior to Carnival because of its energizing effect that it was thought could lead to rowdiness or even revolt (Ken Albala & Trudy Eden, Food and Faith in Christian Culture).
There does seem to be a connection between an increase of intellectual activity with an increase of carbohydrates and sugar, this connection first appearing during the early colonial era that set the stage for the Enlightenment. It was the agricultural mind taken to a whole new level. Indeed, a steady flow of glucose is one way to fuel extended periods of brain work, such as reading and writing for hours on end and late into the night — the reason college students to this day will down sugary drinks while studying. Because of trade networks, Enlightenment thinkers were buzzing on the suddenly much more available simple carbs and sugar, with an added boost from caffeine and nicotine. The modern intellectual mind was drugged-up right from the beginning, and over time it took its toll. Such dietary highs inevitably lead to ever greater crashes of mood and health. Interestingly, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who advocated the ‘rest cure’ and ‘West cure’ in treating neurasthenia and other ailments additionally used a “meat-rich diet” for his patients (Ann Stiles, Go rest, young man). Other doctors of that era were even more direct in using specifically low-carb diets for various health conditions, often for obesity which was also a focus of Dr. Mitchell.
17 thoughts on ““Yes, tea banished the fairies.””
Below is a comment I left at someone else’s post. It summarizes my thoughts that led up to the post above about tea and fairies. My comment was left at the second link, which is the second in a series.
Here is my comment:
This post is much easier for me to understand. It fits my own studies and thought. But I would put this breakdown in a larger historical perspective. As the old order was replaced, people began speaking of depression, nostalgia, neurasthenia, etc. Along these lines, a while back, I wrote an extensive post that was in response to one of your earlier posts:
That mostly focuses on the 19th century, although it touches upon some of the developments before that. In a different piece, I discussed the the overwhelming pre-revolutionary anxiety that came about with the romance novel:
Just today, I explored this from yet another angle, that of the introduction of tea as a stimulant during the colonial trade.
All of that created a crisis of identity. Because of the end of feudal vassalage and the rights of the commons, partly because of the enclosure movement, it violently disrupted communal life and communal identity (see Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets). Serfs who for generations and centuries had lived on the same land were suddenly evicted and mass urbanization followed.
The rise of individuality happened simultaneously with the crisis of individuality. We’ve never gotten past that crisis. We temporarily forget the crisis during economic boom times when everything seems to be progressing. But that doesn’t last long before anxiety emerges again. This same period of transition has seen ever new forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, new forms of concentrated and expansionist power: colonial imperialism, nation-states, fascism, communism, etc.
There is some comfort in knowing that the attendant moral panics have been arising like clockwork for centuries now. They shock society each time they occur. Yet they so far have always ended with collective amnesia settling back upon the public mind. Slight shifts in the self accumulate over time, as they become normalized, until the next new threat to identity comes along. Each time it seems unique, maybe the final breaking point. Well, somehow our civilization continues to stumble along, impelled by our often hidden anxiety.
“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”